Major League Baseball has seen 74 different pitchers log at least 250 combined IP since the start of the 2022 regular season, in which time only Framber Valdez (60.5%), Logan Webb (59.5%), and Alex Cobb (59.4%) have posted higher rates of inducing grounders than Marcus Stroman (54.4%). None of Valdez, Webb, or Cobb is a free agent at the moment, and that’s precisely why I’m writing today about Stroman and his potential fit with the Cincinnati Reds this winter.
Pitchers who induce a lot of grounders typically don’t give up nearly as many homers as their counterparts who work in the fly-ball realm. As expected, Stroman’s 0.82 HR/9 during that two-year window ranks as the 9th best, with both Valdez and Webb slightly ahead of him (along with aces like Justin Verlander, Blake Snell, Sonny Gray, Max Fried, and Justin Steele). None of those guys are free agents at this time of writing, either.
Stroman has carved out quite the niche over the last 10 years, 9 of which he’s spent at the big league level while compiling a tidy 3.65 ERA and 3.63 FIP across 1303.2 IP in stints with the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, and Chicago Cubs. He’s established himself as a mostly durable righty, twice clearing 200 IP in single seasons in his career, twice making All Star Game appearances, and once earning some down-ballot Cy Young Award votes back in 2017.
At 32 years old and coming off a season in which an odd combination of an ailing hip and a rare rib cartilage injury shelved him for over a month, he’s not expected to command the kind of top-tier contract that the likes of Snell, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, or even Gray entered free agency demanding this winter. MLB Trade Rumors listed him 18th on their list of the Top 50 free agents during this window, estimating that he’d land a 2-year, $44 million contract from someone willing.
The fine folks at MLBTR detailed more specifics of Stroman’s 2023 season, noting that he’d been pitching at a Cy Young caliber level prior to the hip/rip injury combo. He aggressively pushed to return in any role possible for the ill-fated playoff push the Cubs put forth last year, pitching shorter stints out of the bullpen to give them anything he could (despite a pitch arsenal that was 1-2 mph lower than it usually was during that time).
To me, that screams opportunity, one the Reds would be wise to explore. He’s not in a position with high leverage the way that, say, Sonny Gray was earlier this winter, fresh off a platform year that may well have been the best of his career. Some of Stroman’s numbers weren’t quite as good as they’ve been in season’s past, but there you can make a pretty concrete case for why that was, and none of the underlying reasons look like they threaten to plague him going forward. They just so happened to conspire to happen at the wrong time for him, and that just might be enough to deflate his asking price to a level where the Cincinnati Reds can enter the fray.
The Reds, of course, have been looking high and low for a veteran, top of the rotation arm all winter. They were ‘close’ to signing Gray before he headed to St. Louis earlier in the hot stove season, while rumors that the Reds have kicked tires on the likes of Cleveland’s Shane Bieber and Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow have persisted, too. With Stroman, however, it would be a simple acquisition through signing a contract, with the need to trade key pieces from Cincinnati’s vaunted farm system not part of the pact. All it would take is money, after all.
The question, of course, is whether Stroman profiles as the kind of pitcher in 2024 that Bieber and Glasnow do, and whether the additional money it would take to sign him rectifies that with the lower financial commitment the other two would require. Glasnow, while uber-talented, has never thrown more than 120.0 IP big league innings in any single season, so his Steamer projection for 164.0 IP (and 3.8 fWAR) seems a bit ripe - and that’s with a salary of $25 million on the books for 2024 already. Bieber, meanwhile, is estimated to make roughly half that in his final arbitration year, and after a season in which his velocity dipped with an arm injury Steamer still has him pegged for 193.0 IP and 2.9 fWAR in 2024.
Stroman is a couple years older than both, but his 2024 projections from Steamer seem pretty much in-line with those two - 186.0 IP of 4.11 ERA ball, or a 2.6 fWAR season. fWAR, it should be noted, so often undervalues pitchers who depend on the ball being put in play, valuing higher those who limit walks and post high strikeout rates. As mentioned previously, that’s never been Stroman’s calling card as inducing grounders on weak contact is what’s made him a big leaguer for a decade.
It’s a compelling case, I think, especially when you hear the asking price for other top of the rotation trade candidates like Dylan Cease. Cease, I should add, is projected by Steamer for 2.7 fWAR in 2024 on the back of 178.0 IP of 3.81 ball.
Projections are rarely spot-on, obviously. That’s why it’s imperative to look beyond those at the nature of each player’s performance, their tendencies and intentions, and attempt to gauge how well those will hold up based on both past performance and the scenario they’d walk into going forward. With Stroman, it’s hard for me to look past how well his arsenal and approach would fit in the bandbox that is GABP, and that he’s available on a deal that shouldn’t be cost-prohibitive keeps jumping out in my mind. After Gray, he was the top arm on my shortlist entering the winter, and that leaves him atop the list at the expected cost right now.
Go get him, Nick!